John Hiatt‘s best album since 2000’s Grammy-nominated Crossing Muddy Waters finds him, in his own words, in “John the Troubadour Folk Singer Blues Guy” mode.
The blues percolates through Terms of My Surrender more than on Hiatt’s past few releases, which have tended more towards gravelly country-folk. The gently revised focus seems to have ignited the great wordsmith’s songwriting torch in colors that speak especially authentically. For an analogue, think of all the simple, husky blues ragas on Bob Dylan’s recent albums, but without the obscure lyrics.
“Long Time Coming,” one of the best tracks, opens the 11-song disc with a simple folksy strain that deepens into an epic cry of “Your work is never done.”
“Face of God” is a thumping country blues in which a Jonah-like figure laments the suffering to be endured “before you see the eye of God.”
The dancing rhythms of “Marlene” give way to the flat, dusty vocals of “Wind Don’t Have to Hurry” with its creepy, wordless chorus, which graphically evokes the unpaved roads of the abandoned soul and has already etched itself into my neural network. At full volume, it creates its own world complete – something Hiatt has always been able to do, and it’s displayed all over this album.
The deceptively simple “Nobody Knew His Name” forms its own little world too, vividly drawing a character whose lost love and traumatic past render him a living ghost “crying by the side of the tracks…red tip of a cigarette glowing, window up against the rain.”
But the songs aren’t all mourning and regrets – witness the playful “Baby’s Gonna Kick” and “Old People.” And then there’s the winking, draggy blues of the cautiously hopeful “Nothing I Love,” which leads into the title track, a song that recalls the jazz-blues side of the Great American Songbook while at the same time giving off a pleasant casually-tossed-off air.
Though at age 61 the “Troubadour Folk Singer Blues Guy” may have lost the top of his vocal register, he continues to plumb the rich depths of his art. Listen in close: the tones are low, the tempos slouchy, and you can hear how the writer of “Tennessee Plates, “Have a Little Faith In Me,” and Bonnie Raitt’s “Thing Called Love” has still got that little thing called genius. The Terms of My Surrender haven’t yet been met.